2000 - 2007 Books in Translation

Minor Angels by Antoine Volodine

Minor Angels Translated from the French by Jordan Stump

Five words from the blurb: postcataclysmic, immortal, angels, avenging, dark

I bought a copy of Minor Angels after seeing several people (I’m afraid I can’t remember who) raving about it on Twitter. I can see why the book is highly regarded, but my opinion of it is very mixed.

Minor Angels is set in a postcataclysmic world and revolves around a nursing home where all of the residents appear to be immortal. It is narrated by 49 different angels, each given their own chapter (or narract, as the author likes to refer to them).

The book could be described in two ways:

  1. A masterpiece, which reveals more with every reading.
  2. An confusing, impenetrable piece of work.

I can’t decide which it is! The writing was outstanding and individual scenes were dazzlingly vivid, but I struggled to understand the overall concept. Each chapter was so short that the book felt fragmented and I failed to see many links between the narracts. Volodine states that the connections will only become obvious in the dreams of the reader;  but I’m unlikely to dream about it so it remains a mystery to me!

I loved the imagery of the book and admired the portrayal of the angels:

A dense arch took shape over me, formed of warm breath and arthritic hands and coarse, rutted faces. The intermingled fabrics whirled this way and that, the dust wheeled from one mouth to the other. Their words described the state of things after and before the world revolution, pelting me like falling hail. I took all this in, all these sentences, all those gutturals recounting a universal disaster, and, second by second, my understanding of the situation grew.

It all felt incredibly realistic. It’s just a shame that I failed to understand the overall concept as I’m sure a lot of the wisdom was lost on me.

Recommended to those who enjoy piecing together the symbolism in a complex set of texts.



DVD Review: Untouchable (French Cinema)

Untouchable [DVD]

Five words from the blurb: Paris, slum, quadriplegic, wealthy, adventure

I don’t normally review films on this blog, but I don’t often watch ones that are as good as this! Untouchable is funny, but moving; entertaining, but with a deeper message beneath the surface. It is made even more wonderful by the fact that it is based on a true story.

Untouchable begins in Paris with Philippe, a wealthy quadriplegic, interviewing for the position of his carer. Driss, a poor Sengalese man, is only attending the interview in order to get his benefit book stamped, but Philippe loves his attitude and hires him on the spot. The pair form an unlikely friendship, with Driss injecting fun and adventure back into Phillipe’s life.

The acting was flawless and the chemistry between the two characters was heart-warming to watch. It is rare to see male friendship investigated on screen and I think we could all learn a lot from their interactions.

I loved the way the film highlighted the problem of society looking down on disabled people, assuming they are stupid and of no value. The way it contrasted these issues with the problems faced by those living in poverty was cleverly done. It somehow managed to avoid being condescending, simply showing how important it is to make the most of what we have.

There was a lot of bad language, but it was an accurate portrayal of the people involved and never felt gratuitous. Scenes of a sexual nature wre minimal, but there was a touching love story that added an extra dimension to the emotional rollercoaster.

There were some sad moments in the film, but the majority was uplifting and I ended it with a massive grin on my face. It’s the best thing I’ve watched in ages.

Highly recommended.


Have you seen Untouchable?

Did you enjoy it as much as I did?

1800s Audio Book Books in Translation Classics Recommended books Uncategorized

Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola (Audio Book)

zola Narrated by Paul Freeman

Five words from the blurb: loveless, marriage, affair, murder, revenge

Zola is one of those authors I always wanted to try, but kept putting off as I was intimidated by his reputation. I really shouldn’t have worried – Thérèse Raquin wasn’t difficult to read. Instead I found an engaging book, deserving of its classic status. 

Thérèse Raquin is a young woman who is forced to marry her sickly cousin, Camille. She resents the time they spend together, especially when she falls in love with Camille’s best friend, Laurent. Thérèse and Laurent begin a passionate affair, revelling in the secrecy of their relationship. Eventually they realise they cannot continue like this forever and plot to kill Camille. This leads to a gripping narrative that is packed with atmosphere and emotion.

I listened the the BBC audio production of this book and I think that this the perfect way to experience this story. The text can appear quite dense and difficult on the page, but Paul Freeman did a fantastic job narrating this unabridged version. He made the story come alive and the difficulties seemed to melt away when the words were put into the mouths of the characters.

This book probably contains the best portrayal of jealousy and regret that I’ve ever read. The complex relationships felt realistic and the fear and paranoia of this couple jumped from the page. I completely understood the thoughts and emotions of everyone involved and was entranced throughout; longing to know what would happen, but simultaneously dreading the conclusion.

He turned the same idea over in his head until daybreak. Previous to the visit of Thérèse, the idea of murdering Camille had not occurred to him. He had spoken of the death of this man, urged to do so by the facts, irritated at the thought that he would be unable to meet his sweetheart any more. And it was thus that a new corner of his unconscious nature came to be revealed.

Beneath the dark and twisted story the book was packed with symbolism. I’m sure that it could be read multiple times, with new layers of meaning being discovered each time. It is amazing to think that it was first published in 1867 – it must have been even more shocking back then.

Thérèse Raquin is a powerful warning about the danger of wanting what you can’t have. I can’t fault this book and it has shot straight onto my list of favourites.


Have you read this book? Did you enjoy it?

Which of Zola’s books do you suggest I try next?


1930s Books in Translation Novella

Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Southern Mail / Night Flight (Penguin Modern Classics)  Translated from the French by Curtis Cate

Five words from the blurb: adventurer, aviation, risks, airmail, courage

I have a fear of flying so was surprised to see The Novel Cure recommend a book about an air crash as a potential solution to my problem. I was dubious (and scared!) but decided to give it the benefit of the doubt and see if it would help me. Having finished the book I’m not sure it has allayed any of my fears, but it is a much better suggestion than I first thought.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery was a pilot in the early days of the French airmail service. He risked his life transporting mail over the Andes and the Sahara and used his experiences to write several books. He is said to have produced some of the best aviation novels in existence, but I’m afraid I don’t think “aviation-lit” is for me.

Night Flight is a short book (just 63 pages) that tells the story of Fabian, a pilot delivering mail in Argentina. His boss, Rivière, instructs Fabian to continue flying, despite the dangerous thunderstorm approaching. The book highlights the dilemma of whether or not you should follow orders that put you at risk and shows the vulnerability of those who took part in early air travel. I was worried that the book would give me more reason to fear flying, but the descriptions were so cold and technical that they didn’t elicit an emotional response.

The writing was fantastic and the descriptions were beautiful, but it was too slow for me and I became bored:

Yet the night was rising, like a dark smoke, and already filling the valleys, which could no longer be distinguished from the plains. The villages were lighting up, greeting each other across the dusk like constellations. With a flick of his finger he blinked his wing-lights in answer.

In retrospect, this is the perfect book to read on a plane – you’ll either be mesmerised by its beauty or sent to sleep by its descriptive prose.


Books in Translation Other Prizes

Death of an Ancient King by Laurent Gaudé

Death of an Ancient King Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

Winner of the Prix Goncourt des Lyceéns 2002 and the Prix des Libraires 2003

Five words from the blurb: King, old, wedding, conflict, honour

I recently had a wonderful Twitter conversation with @thetoietlis about French fiction. She recommended many books, but Death of an Ancient King caught my eye as she said it was too dark for her. I bought a copy knowing it would also be perfect for Paris in July – a month long celebration of French literature and culture organised by BookBath and Thyme for Tea.

Death of an Ancient King has a fable-like quality and can be seen as warning against the futility of war. It begins with King Tsongor preparing a lavish wedding for his daughter, but on the eve of the big day a former suitor appears, claiming that she is promised to him. The King is unable to resolve the situation and a war breaks out between the two potential husbands. 

The entire book was quick and easy to read. It flowed beautifully and gave no indication that it was in translation.  Unlike @thetoietlis I didn’t find it too dark. There were descriptions of battle, but the scenes were described in a detached way, so I was never disturbed.

The days and months passed to the rhythm of warriors advancing and retreating. Positions were taken, then lost, then taken again. Thousands of footsteps carved out pathways of suffering in the dust of the plain. They advanced. They retreated. They died. The bodies dried in the sun, were reduced to skeletons. Then the bones, bleached by time, crumbled, and more warriors came to die in these heaps of man-dust.

I loved the first 80 pages, but after that scenes of war took over and I became less interested. If these had been reduced by about 75% the book would have had far more impact. 

King Tsongor was a fantastic character and I found his story the most interesting. I wish that we’d learnt more about his past and the story surrounding his footman had been given more prominence. 

Overall this was a compelling story with a good moral heart, but there was too much fighting for me. 


Laurent Gaudé is an interesting author and I’m keen to try more of his novels. Have you read any of them?


2013 Books in Translation Other Prizes

The Son by Michel Rostain

The SonTranslated from the French by Adriana Hunter

Winner of the Prix Goncourt 2011, Selected for Waterstones 11 2013

Five words from the blurb: meningitis, death, son, grief, life

Michel Rostain’s teenage son died suddenly from a virulent strain of meningitis. The Son is the fictionalised story of a family who lose their son to the same disease. It is written from the perspective of the teenage boy, Lion, and this omniscient narrator gives the book a special inquisitive perspective. The realistic nature of the text leads me to believe that much (all?) of this book is based on real events and this insight makes other books about grief seem insignificant.

This is one of the most emotionally powerful books I’ve ever read. It is one of the only books that has enabled me to completely understand what it is like to go through a devastating sequence of events. I hope I never have to experience anything like this, but if the worst happens this book has given me the comfort of knowing that life can go on afterwards.

The depth and range of emotion present in this book is breathtaking. It never becomes overly sentimental or shys away from showing the darker side of humanity. Shortcomings are open for all to see and this vulnerability only adds to emotional impact of this book.

I’ll be dead four hours later and Dad’s spending money in a supermarket. As of now, he will forever loathe the inevitable stop-off for the weekly shop. He’d always been disparaging about those nowhere-land places – shitty music, mediocre products, insidious layout, stooped ghost figures trundling from one shelf to another. But he still went every week, one of many contradictions. To think he lost some of the last few moments he could have spent with me alive – the memory of it destroys him.

The deep sadness is layered with hope; showing how friends and family can help each other through grief. It is a roller-coaster of emotion, and does have more downs than ups, but I think it is worth the emotional investment. The ending is beautiful and I only hope that Michel Rostain and his family had a similar outcome to their own tragedy.

Highly recommended.